That Others May Live
“I’m not a cripple.”
“Never said you were, son.”
Lt. Scott Bryan glared at the cab driver. Why wouldn’t the man take his money? He couldn’t stand people feeling sorry for him.
The man twisted in the front seat and gestured toward the patch on the sleeve of Scott’s uniform. “Son, I was at Hamburger Hill in sixty-nine. I wouldn’t have made it if a helicopter full of PJs hadn’t pulled my ass out. I give a lot of you boys from Walter Reed free rides. Just my way of sayin’ thanks.”
Scott cleared his throat but the lump that formed didn’t go away. He simply nodded and put the twenty back in his pocket. Struggling, he managed to extricate himself from the back seat without assistance. The doctors in Kandahar saved his legs but even after six months of physical therapy, he still walked with a cane. Leaning down to peer in the front passenger window, he offered a smile. “Thanks.”
The cabby saluted and drove away as Scott turned to face the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. The gold locket in his pocket burned a proverbial hole. He should have made this pilgrimage months ago. Instead, he’d hung onto the necklace as a sort of good luck talisman. The photo of the girl inside kept him pushing through the pain and exhaustion. It was wrong of him. He’d made a promise to a soldier as the man lay dying on the bloody deck of Scott’s helicopter—to return the locket to the girl back home. Only the helo had been shot down on the way back to home base after leaving the hospital heliport. His teammates had died, but Scott survived though horribly injured. Now he had scars—inside and out—and bum legs to show for it.
He shoved his hand into his pocket, fingering the now-familiar square pendant. He’d wondered who the girl was. Wife? Girlfriend? Did she mourn her soldier? He was half in love with the picture. He’d spent hours during physical therapy fantasizing about her. He didn’t care that she belonged to a dead man—a man he’d failed to save. That was his job. That others may live. The creed of the United States Airforce Pararescue Jumpers. He was supposed to save all those broken bodies he and the other PJs retrieved from the battlefields, flying them by helicopter back to a hospital. But he hadn’t saved this one and he hadn’t fulfilled his promise to get the locket home.
Two enlisted men passed him, both saluting smartly and pulling him from his reverie. He raised his hand to his forehead in response. Time to get this finished. He inquired where to locate the grave and set off, his gait uneven, to find it. He had an apology to make to the ghost of the man buried there.
Emily Kane looked around to make sure no one paid her any attention. Sinking onto the grass, she crossed her legs Indian style and reached out to trace the name on the headstone. She had no more tears to shed so she simply sat, soaking up the early April sunshine.
“Decoration Day is coming next month, Jeff. Remember I told you that Grandpa had your name added to the family stone back home?” She tried to laugh but the sound came out strangled and forced. “I keep reminding them that it’s called Memorial Day now, but you know how they are. They’ll put out a flag and lay a wreath. Grandpa will be wearing his American Legion cap and vest and he’ll salute right proper.”
A tear rolled down her cheek but she ignored it. “Ah, damn, bubba but I miss you.” More tears followed.
Scott watched the woman. His heart hurt so much for her. He’d recognized her as soon as he walked up but he hated to intrude on her grief. He could make amends now, if he retreated to the entrance and waited for her. He would approach her and offer the return of the locket, just as Jeff Kane had requested. Fighting the urge to go to her, to offer comfort, knowing he only wanted to hold her as he’d dreamed of doing all this time, he backed away.
Startled, Scott spun around so quickly he teetered off-balance. Regaining his footing, he stared at the man who’d seemed to appear from thin air. The soldier’s gaze fixed on his shoulder patch and then the gold bar on his collar.
“You okay, sir?”
“Yeah. Yes. I’m good. I didn’t mean to plow into you.”
The soldier stared over Scott’s shoulder. “She comes every week, you know.”
Turning toward the girl sitting at the grave, Scott felt his heart lurch again. “She must love him a lot.” His mouth felt as dry as Afghanistan’s deserts but he managed to get the words out.
“Yessir, I think she does. They were close.” The man glanced at him. “You should go introduce yourself, Lieutenant. She’d like that, knowing you were there, that you tried to help.”
“But I didn’t. He died.”
“We all die, sir. Sooner or later. She needs t’know that he was thinking of her, remembering home.” The man clapped Scott on the shoulder and gave a gentle push. “Go on now. I think you need to go introduce yourself, sir. She’s a real sweetheart.”
Still wobbly on his bad legs and cane, Scott shuffled toward the grave and the pretty girl. Her hair, a dull blonde in the photo, glistened beneath the spring sun with shades of blonde and red. When he stopped beside her, he recognized the sprinkling of ginger freckles across her nose and cheeks but her blue eyes were far beyond anything her picture conveyed. She shaded those luminous eyes as she glanced up. She offered a curious if wavery smile as she watched him.
“Uhm…” Scott shoved his hand into his pocket and closed his fingers around the locket. “I’m…uhm…”
She glanced at his patch and a look of confusion replaced the hesitant smile. “Can I help you?”
“My name is Scott. Scott Bryan. I…uhm…I’m a PJ and I…” His uncertainty surged as her eyes widened.
“Were you there? With Jeff?” She jumped to her feet and her hand landed on his arm. Warmth spread straight to his heart. “We heard from his CO that he’d been picked up after the IED, that the PJs came for him in their helo and got him to Kandahar. Was that you? Oh my gosh but I’ve dreamed about meeting you, about thanking you.”
She all but gushed in her excitement. All he could do was nod before she started babbling again. She finished by saying, “I’m Emily. Emily Kane. I…could I buy you a cup of coffee or a piece of pie or something?” Emily looked so pretty and so full of life. Scott couldn’t resist her.
Thirty minutes later, they shared a table at her favorite coffee shop. She had something frou-frou, he had plain black in a ceramic mug. He loved the sound of her voice. Hell, if he was honest, he’d admit he loved her—no matter how inappropriate those feelings.
“Jeff was an absolute jerk when we were growing up. And heaven forbid when a date came to the house to pick me up. He’d answer the door with a shotgun in his hands.”
Her words finally penetrated his guilt-induced haze. “Wait…what? Dates?”
Emily tilted her head and squiggled her nose. Scott had the insane desire to kiss its tip. “Uhm…yeah. Dates. I dated in high school. And my jerk of a brother decided he needed to scare off any potential boyfriends.”
He stared at her for a long moment, realized his mouth was gaping, and snapped his jaw closed. “Jeff was your brother?”
She nodded, looking bemused. “Yeah. And?”
Scott didn’t breathe for a minute, despite the hammering of his heart. Then he started to laugh. He couldn’t stop. Within moments, he was crying through the laughter, feeling foolish, forlorn, and for the first time in months, hopeful.
Emily reached over and cupped her hand over his. His fingers automatically laced through hers. How many times had he envisioned doing just that? He couldn’t count. Didn’t need to. When he finally regained control, he pulled the locket from his pocket and slid it across the table.
“I thought you were his wife. He asked me to return the locket to you. It was really important to him. It was all he could think of, talk about, until I agreed. I planned to take it back to him, the next time we had a run to the hospital, but we crashed. And by the time—” His voice broke and he swiped his free hand over his eyes.
“Shhh,” Emily soothed. “It’s okay.”
“I have to say this. I found out Jeff died. I didn’t save him.”
“But you tried.”
“But I didn’t save him.” He couldn’t face her any longer, couldn’t stand to see her condemnation of him, so he dropped his chin to his chest, refusing to meet her eyes.
Taking his hand in both of hers, Emily ducked and tilted her head so he’d have to look at her. “I tucked that stupid locket into his duffle bag as he was shipping out. He never mentioned anything so I figured it had dropped out and gotten lost.” Her smile remained strong even though her eyes glistened with unshed tears. “But it didn’t. He found it. Kept it. And made sure it got back to me.”
They drank coffee. Talked. Held hands. Shared secrets. He admitted how he’d fallen in love with her picture, how thinking of her had seen him through his rehabilitation. She told him of growing up in Georgia, of coming to Virginia for college and staying, unwilling to go home where everything reminded her of her brother and best friend.
Hours later, she drove him back to Walter Reed Hospital. Emily left him with a kiss and a promise of seeing him soon. They dated, became sweethearts, and visited Jeff’s grave every week. As Memorial Day approached, Emily scored tickets for the Presidential wreath-laying ceremony from her boss, a senator.
Memorial Day dawned overcast and chilly. Scott dressed slowly, making sure each part of his dress uniform was meticulous. His shoes glowed from the spit shine he’d put on them the previous night, his medals—including his Purple Heart—lined his chest in precise rows. Emily picked him up at the hospital and they joined the throngs at Arlington.
They found their place in the reviewing stand—on the front row. People came up to Scott, thanking him for his service. The lump in his throat had grown to the size of fist and if Emily hadn’t been there, holding his hand, gazing up at him with adoring eyes, he would have bolted. He didn’t deserve praise. The ghosts of all the men he hadn’t saved lined up in his mind. Each one demanded recognition. He freaked out as the echoes of explosions and the clatter of chopper blades and small arms fire warred with the stench of blood and guts and the moans of broken men.
Someone bumped his arm, a gentle nudge he almost didn’t feel, but it was enough to pull him back from the brink. He was surprised to see the same soldier who had urged Scott to meet Emily appear beside him. The man winked when Scott glanced at him
“You were right,” Scott whispered. “She is a real sweetheart.”
An anticipatory stir ruffled the crowd. The soldier tapped the USAF Pararescue patch on Scott’s shoulder. “That others may live. That means you, too, sir.” He glanced pointedly at Emily, who was so engrossed in the pomp and ceremony she paid no attention to them.
By habit, Emily slipped her arm through Scott’s, distracting him for a moment. When he glanced back at the soldier, the man was walking toward the Tomb of the Unknown. Before he could say anything, the ceremony began with members of the Old Guard executing their measured march. The soldier leaned against the Tomb watching. As the honor guard passed, another man joined him—a man who looked very much like Jeff Kane. Both men gazed straight at Scott, and saluted. He saluted automatically then watched as they disappeared.
At the end of the ceremony, with the wreath in place before the Tomb, and with the last wavering notes of “Taps” drifting away on the breeze, Emily rose on her tiptoes to place a kiss on his lips.
“Did you see them?” she asked.
His gaze returned to the Tomb. “That others may live,” he murmured. He cupped Emily’s cheeks in his hands and kissed her tenderly. “I’m ready to start living, Emily. With you, if you’ll have me. I love you.”
She blinked rapidly and he recognized the hope shining in her eyes. “Are you…are you…”
“Will you marry me, Emily Kane?”
“Absolutely, Scott Bryan.”
As they walked off arm-in-arm, the two ghosts leaned against the Tomb. “I think she got a good one, Sergeant Kane.”
“Thanks to you. Hey, I don’t even know your name.”
“Yeah. That’s the way it works, Sarge.” The Ghost of the Unknown shrugged and offered a wry smile as he faded into the white granite of the Tomb.